Put the life of a legendary music-maker/campaigner in the hands of a controversial choreographer and you’ll possibly end up with some explosive stuff.
Put the life of a legendary music-maker/campaigner in the hands of a controversial choreographer and you’ll possibly end up with some explosive stuff. This is what the Broadway producer Stephen Hendel might have had in mind when he asked Bill T. Jones to direct and choreograph a musical about Fela Kuti. But whether or not he saw his dream realised, I am not sure.
Fela! hails from Broadway where it has been a long-running sizzling hit. It has great music, an almost endless stream of colourful numbers and an engaging storyline. Yet it never moves beyond the well-established formulae of musical theatre’s equivalent of a biopic. The inner struggle of the protagonist, the harsh and sometimes horrific vicissitudes of his life, are portrayed with the typical Broadway/West End gloss — at the expense of history and its crudeness.
Jones’s diehard fans may feel seriously let down. The man who made waves with his naked rendition of the Last Supper and the performative exploitation of terminally ill people in Still Here seems to have turned his back on controversy in favour of safer commercial theatre.
He is not the first great name from the dance world to tackle a musical: George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and, most significantly, the African–American dance pioneer Kathryn Dunham are among the many who have done so. Alas, he is no match for such illustrious predecessors. His directorial approach shows little innovation: the story starts in 1978, in Kuti’s club The Shrine, and develops through a series of biographical flashbacks and flash-forwards. Some of Jones’s most distinctive signature ideas punctuate the performance, and the eponymous character engages happily with the viewers either to provoke or amuse them. But the choreography is disappointingly uninventive. Only the seemingly impromptu dancing of individual cast members distracts the viewer from the threadbare choreography. Indeed, the show’s success stems almost exclusively from the superb performance of the cast, led by the charismatic and multitalented Sahr Ngaujah as Kuti, Melanie Marshall as his mother and Paulette Ivory as Sandra, one of his muses.
In common with other biopic-like musicals, this one loses steam in the second half. I would have done without the music-hall-like, fluorescent-lit African tribal dance number and the über-cheesy ending with cast members walking through the audience carrying little coffins. Still, both are perfectly in line with the direct aesthetics of the musical genre, no matter how much they detract from the depth of the subject matter. Pyrotechnically entertaining as Fela! might be, explosive stuff it ain’t.
Political messages are also embedded in the dance-theatre allegories devised by Jasmin Vardimon for her 7734. The performance begins with a dictatorial conductor leading moving rags round the stage to the overture of Tannhäuser — the current Royal Opera production of which sports Vardimon’s choreography for the Venusberg. The bodies of a couple emerge from the rags, entwined in a painful intercourse, which is the prelude to an endless and somewhat vain race for survival. Issues of genocide, painful histories that still inform our lives and our stories, are brought to the stage. Not all the images are as powerful as they could be, and the overall feeling is that Vardimon could easily have gone more deeply into exposing the horrors that 7734 addresses. I would have liked to see the action move away more radically from the dated parameters of pure Tanztheater. Luckily, several moments of rare beauty and inventiveness in the second half made me forget such flaws.